Given the current situation with COVID-19, it seems that more and more people are interested in how we learn about viruses, develop vaccines, and identify treatments. While scientists are not studying COVID-19 in space, research on the International Space Station (ISS) does tell us a lot about microbes, and I thought this would be a good time to share my reflections from the 2019 World Vaccine and Immunotherapy Congress (WVIC) West Coast meeting that I attended in December.
For each of the last four years, industry leaders have met at WVIC West Coast to discuss emerging technologies and innovative strategies to tackle some of the world’s most challenging problems in global health. Attendees include representatives from biopharma, academia, and government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, as well as numerous startups developing unique platforms to address infectious disease and cancer treatment.
At the 2019 WVIC West Coast meeting, I had the opportunity to present to experts in vaccine and immunotherapy development the value of leveraging the ISS U.S. National Laboratory for impactful research in these areas. Prolonged exposure to microgravity changes biological processes, from the whole organism down to cellular and even molecular levels.
Of specific relevance to immune-related research, in space, immune function is less robust—resulting in fewer numbers of immune cells and changes in cytokine expression. Pathogens may also alter their physiology to become more virulent. Immune responses in astronauts and in animal models indicate a reduced ability for the body to defend itself against viruses and other pathogens after microgravity exposure.
While these observations are currently limited to only a few astronauts and model organisms, the results raise important questions about how we can leverage microgravity to improve our understanding of immune function and to develop improved therapeutics to battle infectious diseases on Earth.
Although flu vaccines remain an effective method for preventing infection, the technology behind the annual flu vaccine is decades old. The threat of new emerging viruses demonstrates that there is clearly a need to innovate new approaches to vaccine discovery and delivery as well as opportunities to use vaccines for the treatment of some diseases.
Immunotherapy—a type of therapy that enhances a person’s immune system to fight disease—is an emerging method of treatment for some cancers, but technical and regulatory challenges still exist preventing immunotherapy from becoming a mainstream therapeutic strategy.
The ISS National Lab is currently collaborating with global pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and Sanofi Pasteur on projects that push the boundaries of discovery in immunotherapy and vaccine development, respectively. AstraZeneca seeks to learn how microgravity might impact the production and secretion of monoclonal antibodies from a cell line, ultimately aiming to improve the rate at which quality immunotherapies can be manufactured here on Earth.
Cells in culture change their physiology in interesting ways in microgravity. For example, rates of proliferation may increase. There have also been reports of the reactivation of latent viruses in astronauts during their time in microgravity. These observations have led researchers at Sanofi Pasteur to investigate a mechanism that would contribute greater rates of proliferation of the influenza virus in a cell culture model. A second project from Sanofi Pasteur seeks to understand how human immune cells change in microgravity. Results from this work could lead to better methods of vaccine production and improved vaccine efficacy.
As we continue conversations around our ability to respond to infectious disease and mitigate impacts nationally and globally, I look forward to follow-on discussions about how the ISS National Lab can help researchers innovate technologies that would allow us to react faster and save more lives.